Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town
01.12.16 – 30.04.17
This essay commences with a thunderous 21 gun salute to Athi-Patra Ruga’s Invitation …presentation…induction, a wool and thread canvas tapestry, whose dazzling pyrotechnic display of richly saturated midnight blues, yellows, oranges and scarlets make it stand out as the most glamorous and gloriously bedizened artefact of the entire show. This phantasmagorical extravaganza defies every scientific law including that of gravity, for, through their sheer weight, tapestries normally drop down the wall in heavy vertical lines, whereas Ruga’s Invitation …presentation…induction is a defiant skewed trapezoid.
This is the first of the many feats of conjuring whereby the artist imagines the shock of the first encounter. A party of Zulu warriors, shields and spears aloft are confronted by balloon encrusted aliens. These space invaders, with their toned fuchsia thighs, rainbow-hued raspberry bodies and ray guns, look like they might have arrived for an intergalactic gay pride parade. Every element is denatured and recast in a mode so high-key, vivid and bizarre that it transports us into a sensually enthralling hyper-reality where the grass gleams emerald, rather than green, and sapphire blue blades violate all botanical norms.
Revisiting first encounters and revising first impressions is a thread that is woven consistently through ‘Women’s Work.’ The title is a dismissive pejorative for humble domestic tasks such as cooking, washing, ironing, darning, and in leisure moments, sewing, embroidery, beading and macramé. Whatever ire or eyebrows this title may raise, the show addresses it with healthy revisionism. The curators’ thesis statement is two-fold: firstly, to remind that media engendered as female has a staggering share of male proponents and, secondly, that the art/craft dichotomy is a flawed one, containing a value judgement that continues to prejudice against craft and crafters. Sexist prejudice has always relegated such handwork as is exhibited here to the minor crafts, and indeed the exhibition includes such old-fashioned artefacts as we associate with anthropological and ethnological museums. There is a beaded KwaNdebele marriage blanket, fragments of antique Indian embroideries and an inordinately tiny and exquisite lace insert created circa 1830 by a slave about whom nothing is known beyond a name: Melati. However such familiar traditional artefacts are displayed, not only for their own sake, but rather to contextualise the contemporary works that invert, subvert or transcend the associations of the medium of the needle and thread.
One’s initial exposure to the exhibition is a jaundiced glow issuing from the atrium. This is Liza Grobler’s No More Worlds To Conquer, an installation for which the artist has crocheted yellow nylon rope to the curves of the building – in a manner that is not unlike the contours of a knitted toilet-seat cover or a neon spiderweb. Additionally, all of the atriums’ sculptures have been bundled up in canvas as though in storage. From here the show encompasses the majority of the National Gallery filling three enormous rooms as well as the atrium and the plain in front of the Gallery (where a genuine personnel carrier has been wheeled. The gun-mounted vehicle is engulfed in beading that covers it in ethnic designs).
Ruga’s above mentioned tapestry – in which his wild and lawless imagination confects an exotic history hijacked by the science-fiction of vintage comic books – is placed opposite an allegorical 17th century Flemish tapestry of a barely-explored Africa. It has as its sources mariner’s journals, hearsay, travellers’ sketches, biblical tales and illicit mythological borrowings from the Greco-Roman canon. An eroticised and fetishised Queen of Sheba and her retinue are posed, as in a fête galante, amidst an idyllic demesne of tall palms, shrubs, blossoms, streams and rocky peaks. This is a Boucheresque Africa as imagined by men who never set foot on the continent. This Mythical land acted as an ideal repository for European daydreams, fancies and imaginings about the black other and her habitat, thus permitting a vicarious escape from the trammels of drear reality. Such tapestries intentionally contradict the exhibition’s title ‘Women’s Work,’ as men always both produced the old master cartoons which established the basis of the design and executed the actual weaving.
Pierre Fouché is another star of this show. He queers the mythological narrative of the Judgement of Paris by replacing the divine female beauty contestants with the torsos of two male activists – both paragons of virile beauty. One is seen from the front as he drops his trousers, and the other from the rear with the effects of light and shade emphasising his splendid musculature. These compositions are expertly sketched in black thread, using a multitude of contrasting weaving techniques ranging from the coarse lace made by sailors, to far more sophisticated and delicate bobbin lace. Works of such cerebral and technical address eclipse purely decorative works by artists like Siwa Mgoboza and Barend de Wet who produce vibrantly coloured patterns that remain hermeneutically mute.
Igshaan Adams is another artist who is continually growing in stature. His Surah al Fatihah II, part one and two allude to two chapters in the Quran: Al-Fatiha (which contains the most commonly used prayer in daily Islamic life) and Al-Kafiraan. Both works are geometrically patterned wall-hangings made from cords and ropes. Adams visually communicates his appeals to Allah using square Kufic calligraphy in rectilinear shapes in his weaving. The result is two enormous square rugs containing a maze-like script. Surah al Fathiha II (part two)’s design, inspired by military fortifications, represents a labyrinthine complex of paths veering off in different directions – an apt representation of all the choices, dilemmas and perplexities that beset us in our earthly life.
In contrast, Surah al Fatima II (part one) is like an answered prayer. It is a resplendent silver-white creation formed of Kufic patterns overlaid by a mass of reflective tassels and cords. This luxuriant rug is made all the more mystical by its softly reflective quality as resembles an instrument of divine guidance like the pillars of cloud and fire that led Moses and his people to the holy land. This seemingly weightless and ethereal creation – all pearly lustre and gleam – seems to float rather than hang from the wall, and it suggests revelation, redemption and the ever-present, but unseen, immanence of the deity. Thereby it counterpoints the earthly confusion in which we are so deeply enmired in Surah al Fatiha II (part two).
Close by, experimental ceramicist, John Bauer’s apparently-knitted containers rest behind a glass casing. Their containment hints at a fragility that is only evident upon reading the artwork’s information plaque. These three textile gourds are in fact woollen hats slip cast to create exact replicas in the purest white porcelain. Porcelain is usually so clearly defined and rigid in its form and structure, yet Bauer somehow confers an extraordinary malleability upon his vessels which appear to droop, buckle and sag under their own weight, changing shape in response to the pressures brought to bear upon them.
Canvas #5 by Liza Lou is another work whose composite materials are uninteresting at first and then pleasantly surprising after stepping nearer than museum demarcations allow. This fastidiously finished work masquerades as a raw material. What appears to be a swathe of stretched, unprimed canvas that is the beautiful flaxen colour of potential, but by no means worthy of inclusion in the show – is instead a tight mesh of tiny glass beads fashioned to be uncannily mimetic of cloth. There is a tingling excitement piqued by works of art whose duplicity plays out in one’s mind in real time. But as well as providing a jolting moment of realisation Canvas #5 subtly champions the materiality of the medium. The picture plane is made the protagonist and the lowly object is elevated to the importance of the subject.
The inclusion of five women’s cooperatives and a collaborative tapestry from Rorkes Drift (produced in the 1960s) is important for the integrity of the exhibition, considering its explicit advocacy for the elevation of collectives and craft guilds in the esteem of our arts establishments. These art and craft collectives such as the Keiskamma Trust and the Voices of Women Project unselfconsciously assert their right to be represented among the hifalutin ranks of contemporary art. Their messages about the history of the Eastern Cape, the need for facilities for rural South Africans and how democracy has changed their daily lives, add to the wealth of information encoded into the show.
In the Second Sex, Simone De Beauvoir asserted that women of the 20th century had greater difficulty mobilising because their sphere of influence was largely constrained to the home whereas men could mobilise around points of contact such as factory work floors. It is understandable then that spaces where women convene for the purpose of collaboration are spaces of implicit empowerment and form the backbone of activism.
Zyma Amien’s Unpick forms the perfect finale._ is an almost-ready-made installation displaying the dissected contents of a Singer sewing machine. These mechanical organs are laid out like surgical instruments on a glass pane, which is supported by the base of the sewing machine. Beside it is an upended leather suitcase and a folded stack of women’s work garments made using gauze and impaled by little sparkling seamstresses pins. Unpick forms the perfect finale._ is a sculptural altar, dedicated to women’s unacknowledged labour and memorializing the anonymous masses who have contributed to it over the ages.
Ernestine White and Olga Speakes prove themselves to be ingeniously playful curators despite the inclusion of one dismal damp squib. Usha Seejarim uses a length of traditional Indian fabric as a base for a crude and lopsided Johannesburg cityscape. This blocky composition is executed in white griplocks (the small white pieces of plastic used to seal the air out of plastic packets of bread). However the latter are so inexpertly applied they give rise to unsightly creases, ripples and furrows in the fabric, this, and a sticky gluey stain and tear in the upper register, give the piece an amateurish ham-handed appearance.
Despite this work, the exhibition is such an embarrass de richesses that it is impossible to do justice to it in a 2000 word essay. It is at times revelatory, interactive, serious, fastidious, beautiful and interesting and despite its enormity and scope the motif of thread as media is sustained thought and the goal of gender egalitarianism in art is ever present.